Vladimir Putin Is Not Your Conservative Hero

Western conservatives looking for a leading light won’t find it in the Moscow Kremlin.

Russian president Vladimir Putin listens to his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov, during a meeting in Moscow, April 26, 2016
Russian president Vladimir Putin listens to his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov, during a meeting in Moscow, April 26, 2016 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

In an interview with the Financial Times, Vladimir Putin claims “the liberal idea” has “outlived its purpose” and seeks to position himself at the head of a global reactionary movement against immigration, open borders and multiculturalism.

The Financial Times knows that Putin’s evisceration of liberalism chimes with anti-establishment leaders from American president Donald Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Matteo Salvini in Italy and the Brexit insurgency in the UK.

But true believes ought to take a closer look at the Russian leader. He may sound like an ally, but he’s really not interested in your cause.

Pattern

Putin was a liberal before he became a conservative (anti)hero. He pursued liberalization in his first term when it suited him (to raise incomes and popular support) and ditched it when he shifted his focus to restoring Russia’s status as a great power.

This has become a pattern.

Russian journalist Karina Orlova writes in her review of Mark Galeotti’s We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong that the president’s nihilistic pragmatism extends far and wide.

  • Putin supports right-wing populists in Europe and the socialists led by Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.
  • If Putin ever quotes someone, or some ideologies seem to emerge as driving forces in Russia, it is only because they are “politically convenient, and when they become liability they fade from view.”
  • Putin is not an Islamophobe, nor is he a frothing homophobe, but he readily reaches for any of these poses if they give him a means of skewering Western norms.
  • There are more than one million Central Asian migrant workers in Moscow alone — most of them Muslims — but Putin’s propaganda machine insists it is Europe that is “falling apart” under the immigrant flows from Middle East.
  • Top positions in Putin’s government are held by people known to be gay, and Putin himself has publicly said that he has gay friends, but it is Europe that is regularly mocked as “Gayropa” in the Russian media.

The only constant is Putin’s determination to weaken and divide the West, because he knows that a united West could stand up to Russian imperialism in Eastern Europe.

Don’t admire the big man

Some years ago, I cautioned here against admiring the “big man” in politics.

It’s not just that those Westerners demanding “strong leadership” would — rightly — be appalled if it were exerted in their country; their protestations, I still believe, reveal an unhealthy desire to be led. Strong citizens don’t need strong leaders.

One-man rule may offer the mirage of stability, but it is always built on rotten foundations — as is Putin’s. Liberal democracy may be messy and often frustrating, but if the alternative is Putin-style autocracy no sane person could wish to abolish it.